What I learned at TBEX Athens and my writing class with David Farley

Plaka area and Acropolis from A for Athens rooftop bar

This was one of the best parts of TBEX!

Last week, Pat and I attended a convention in Athens, the Travel Bloggers Exchange, or TBEX. I divided the sessions between us according to our interests. Pat, realizing where this was headed, conceded, “Julie, just tell me where to go.” We split up and convened at lunch to share notes. On the last day I admitted, “Wow, I don’t think I want to be a travel blogger.”

The speakers talked about driving SEO scores, selling advertisements, attending sponsored trips and planning a prescribed number of daily posts to Facebook (no more than 2-3 per day), Twitter (up to once an hour) and Instagram (2-3 per day, spread out!). We learned about software programs to schedule our twitter posts. “I have posts scheduled through February of next year!”

Really? I would never do that. What if I dropped dead? And then my kids received creepy twitter posts from me while they were spreading my ashes in Paris. Then, this same woman exclaimed, “And I love it! I get to work at home.” Why, I had to wonder, would a travel blogger want to work from home? Shouldn’t they work from anywhere but home?

She was accomplished, gave a great presentation, and no doubt does more by lunch than I do in a week. But as I listened to her, I realized how boring travel blogging can be – and how exhausting it sounded.

I don’t have to do this. I can continue plodding along on this blog, sharing angst-filled personal essays on aging and retirement interspersed with snippets from our life. Casting aside the dreams of hitting the blogosphere big time allowed me to reject the handful of guest post requests waiting in my inbox. The only reason to write for someone else’s blog is to drive traffic to my blog. Thank goodness that idea has run its course.

Still, we are glad we attended – if for no other reason than we sat with all our kids drinking wine on a rooftop bar while Pat snapped the picture at the top of this post. That, and the fact that I did find my passion.

Before TBEX, I attended a two day writing seminar taught by travel writer and travel writing professor, David Farley. After concocting a string of reasons why I shouldn’t go – couldn’t go – I pried myself off the island of Hydra on the 7AM ferry and walked into class nearly on time. For two days I scribbled pages of notes about everything from the construction of a travel article, to the differences between commercial writing and personal essay, and ultimately a list of outlets which print each form of writing. This is what I love – not travel blogging, travel writing.

At lunch, Farley mentioned I should attend Don George’s writers’ workshop in San Francisco. This is a bit like telling a fox he can go ahead and eat the chicken or Madonna that she would look nice in a black leather bustier with matching fishnet stockings.

Don George is, quite simply, the God of travel writing. I played it cool, squealing “Seriously? I would cut out my kidney to be able to attend that seminar.” At this point, sweet, southern, fellow student Astrid drawled, “Honey, I don’t think you need to go that fahr.”

I have always been a travel writer groupie. But I never knew the rest of the world was not, particularly that part which bills themselves as “travel bloggers”. Yet, in our class no one else seemed to realize who David Farley was (let alone read everything he had ever written). No one could list the best 20 travel writers (living or dead) without taking a breath. And apparently, no one was willing to cut out a vital organ should Don George ever need it.

Yet, for as much as I learned about travel writing, my biggest take away was a new found, and completely delusional, sense of confidence. Farley not only taught me how to construct a travel piece, he made me believe someone may someday print it. When I casually mentioned an idea for a travel article, he replied, “You ought to pitch that.” And I walked away believing it was a perfectly viable suggestion.

Perhaps this is the benefit of age. I have just enough pension and savings to eek out a meager living in some of the most fantastic places in the world, enough time to ply my craft, and few enough remaining years not to waste them doing things I don’t enjoy. I have lived long enough to realize that failure isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person.

My blog will continue to be personal essays about life and whatever place we currently call home. In my spare time, I will dash off travel proposals to people I have never met. Should I one day find our mail carrier crushed under the weight of a Santa sized sack of rejection letters, that’s fine. This goal gives me direction – the only element of my corporate life which I fear losing.

When I mentioned Farley’s idea to attend Don George’s workshop to Pat, he simply said, “Julie, why don’t you go?” And you know, Pat’s right. Why don’t I go? It will be the month after we return from Paris, and we have no firm commitments. Or at least we didn’t. I plan to be there. And of course it goes without saying, just in case, I will bring along my kidney.


Below is the homework assignment from our first night of class. “Write a story about your journey to Athens.”My story wasn’t great, and it wasn’t bad. Neither mattered. I loved writing it. And I will love learning how to make it better.

The Race to Athens

As the plane pulled away from the gate in Budapest’s Franz Liszt Airport and picked up speed, as many as 25 people were standing in the aisles still trying to cram their oversized bags into inadequate bins and laughing with all the lightheartedness of people completely unfazed they were taunting death. “What are they thinking?”, I whispered to my husband, “Airplanes can’t move with people standing.” Then I remembered, the US Federal Aviation Administration has no jurisdiction here. We are in Hungary on a Greek airline bound for Athens – a marriage of two cultures not renowned for adherence to rules, particularly the mundane like queuing and airplane boarding protocol.

The acceleration of the plane, coupled with the flight attendants safety demonstrations, hastened the crowd to their seats. By the time the wheels lifted off the runway, each and every person was strapped in. As we banked south, the servers began to push carts of hot meals and free drinks down the aisles. I am used to the major US carriers where attendants glance through People magazine or chat about their upcoming weekend plans assuring us they are poised to react should disaster strike. This chipper group served dinner to each and every passenger, along with a beverage, during our brief 90 minute flight. Then, they rushed through the cabin to collect our trash and flatten the cardboard meal boxes into a recyclable pile. No sooner had they tucked away the final remnants of our meal when the pilot announced we were entering our approach to Athens.

We arrived at baggage claim, grabbed our already circling luggage, and entered the arrivals hall where our driver, Demetrius, waved a sign with an approximation of my name carefully written in big, blue, boxy capitals. After a perfunctory greeting, he led us outdoors to his awaiting, canary yellow Mercedes, tossed our luggage into the trunk, closed the doors, and pressed the pedal to the floor. We zoomed into traffic, racing under overpasses to the echo of squealing tires and the slightest tinge of burned rubber. Thoughts of Princess Diana coursed through my brain. Did she feel this way as she careened into the tunnel? Did she scream a warning? Should I? We sliced right and left around cars crawling like post-partum tortoises making their way from the beach to the sea. In the distance I spotted a red light. I prayed it would remain long enough to prompt a tap of the brakes. Saint Jude, Saint Christopher? I desperately tried to remember who my mother-in-law evokes for safe travel.

As we entered the city, we transitioned to streets choked with lines of parked cars. Demetrius inched the cab forward. Scenes of my life stopped popping into my brain. I opened my eyes as the car came to a full stop. A heavily accented Greek voice announced, “We’re here. Your apartment.” I silently finished my prayers to the unknown saint, handed Demetrius more than enough coins to prove my thanks to him and every God I had ever heard of, grabbed my bag and stepped out into the dank night as cars raced down the boulevard in front of our apartment shattering any remnants of an illusion of normalcy.

Categories: Ruminations

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18 replies

  1. I love your travel blog JUST AS IT IS!! No, you do not want to become one of those people who writes “from home” and does more before noon than any sane person does in a month. You are learning as you go along, but you know a HUGE AMOUNT already. Do go to the travel writing seminar if you like – this is one of the advantages of living where and how you do right now. Just realize that you are truly excellent already!

  2. You are TOO MUCH, Julie Callahan! YES, you should go ..preferably with two working kidneys and several legal pads.

  3. You are amazing… Please, never stop writing and sharing…

  4. I don’t know you and I’m sad not to have met you. I missed David Farley’s class and spoke about (the boring business side of blogging) hashtag use. For me this was a Greek tragedy but also a comedy. I did get to meet David Farley, after all and he amused me greatly.

    Writing, particularly travel writing, is my first love. I am a writer by genetics, meaning I couldn’t change it if I tried. Unfortunately I also have to earn a living and my writing ability comes in handy as a marketer. I don’t love it, or myself for doing it, but someone has to pay the bills and money buys plane tickets too.

    It’s liberating not to have to compete or scratch out a living from my passion. I just do it. But opportunities to get better at my craft are rare, while opportunities to suck are plentiful (see: marketing, above).

    Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

  5. Hi Julie; it’s Astrid from Louisiana!! I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post because I share some of your Athens TBEX takeaways. I plan to launch my travel blog next year and I will not be drowned by the commercial side of this venture. You and I were probably the oldest attendees at the conference and our instinctive insight into the “advertising racket” travel blogging is becoming was a tad disappointing. I learned a lot at the conference. In the final analysis I decided I will do my upcoming travel blog, “My Way,” and see if it will be a success helping affluent solo women travelers discover the world. Continue on your writing journey; you are gifted. All the Best, Astrid

  6. Hello Julie, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and feel very connected to it. As a sort-of-senior ex-journalist travel-blogger-of-sorts I hear you about the passionate side of writing – that’s all I want to do, travel and write, but I suppose eating gets in the way.

    I live halfway around the world but happened to be in San Francisco the week before Book Passage and Don George – only I didn’t know it until I’d left. I’m black and blue from kicking myself over that. And I missed David Farley in Athens. I’m doing very well, I’d say. I’ve now bought my ticket for TBEX Costa Brava just in case another luminary comes by, so I can pounce.

    Like you I do plan to go to Book Passage, although I won’t make it next year. And I’m thrilled you’ve so generously offered your kidney, or I might have felt compelled to offer Don mine and that would indeed have been painful. I hope we meet sometime!

    • Fortunately, I found this in my spam folder! I bet someone big will be at TBEX Costa Brava. It looks great, but it won’t fit our schedule. Hope you enjoy it. I am sure our paths will cross somewhere in the world. Thanks so much for reaching out. Julie


  1. TBEX Athens Created Opportunities & Fond Memories
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